Into Obscurity


Just as some things move from non-obviousness to obviousness as in the case of fashion and trends, so too do things move in the opposite direction – into obscurity.

The telephone symbol; the handset found in phone boxes around the world, no longer resembles what we associate with a phone.  As technology changes we don’t maintain knowledge of older variations as from a practical standpoint they become obsolete, and are often no longer manufactured, even if equipment is still available on the second-hand market.

I’m interested in preserving such obsolete knowledge and methods for the sake of diversity and the creativity that stems from functional emancipation.  But more seriously, the history of technology is a testament to how both ends and means have changed over time, and at an accelerating pace.  To really understand the differences between one generation and the next is to realise that behind the relatively static labels we use, lies huge change that is present in the structure and process, leading to very different outcomes over time.

What we call “photography”, “writing”, “studying”,”social interaction”, and “communication” have all changed substantively and qualitatively due to advances in technology.  Wishing to preserve older methods is not rooted in nostalgia and a pining for the imagined “good old days”, but in an acknowledgement that unless we analyse, understand and consciously choose our behaviours instead of being caught up in trend currents, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and losing something we never knew we had.  Ultimately, diversity is about preserving our ability to choose, and helps serve as a protective measure against shooting ourselves in the foot.  This makes sense on an everyday level as well as an evolutionary one.  The greater the diversity or variance, the more robust the group, organism, practice or idea etc.

Having multiple methods of communication ensures that ideas survive at least in some form should our ability to decode a certain type of information be negatively affected(blindness, deafness etc).  This implies that there is information that can be conveyed through the written word, but not through its mechanically (and digitally) typed counterpart.  The machines afford us speed and legibility, whereas handwriting offers us a further window into the mind of the author.  Perhaps this a universal relationship: machines confer speed, efficiency and accuracy in exchange for reflection, variation and personality.

In order for machines to retain non-mechanical characteristics, the ability to choose, through maximising their capability to receive user input must be prioritised.  In terms of progress, it doesn’t make sense that we are given less choice over time.  A world in which non-harmful practices, languages and species become increasingly extinct is not a trend in the right direction.

Automation is only worthwhile if we are also able to preserve the possibility for manual override.

One problem seems to be that people’s artistic vision is clouded by their everyday, practical way of seeing and conceptualising the world.  This means that choices which should be artistic considerations are in fact made on practical grounds.

While it’s natural for art to imitate life, its power lies not in the creation of facsimiles or in the mirroring of reality, but in imagining and conjuring of alternatives.

In a sense, it is the duty of the artist to reinforce and emphasise a common boundary between art and efficiency/practicality etc.  By introducing the principles of efficiency into the artistic domain we begin to undermine and negate the specificities that make art unique.  A car is a powerful tool when used for travelling to far-away destinations on a whim and in a short time, but when used as a tropical fish tank it becomes absurd.  For this reason, digital “photography” occupies a strange place in the creative world because it is both the most efficient means of painting, as well as the most efficient method of producing a photographic image.  In effect, the digital camera doesn’t make a good artist’s tool in the same way that a car makes a bad aquarium.

This brings us back to the idea that using objects/processes/words out of context, by liberating them from their previous roles, and in an artistic context, freeing them from their most basic, practical functions, we can use them for new, creative and conceptual purposes.

The reason that functional emancipation is tricky is because we must avoid those well-known functions, just as we must avoid the habits of identification and labelling when trying to see the world around us clearly.  Familiarity with the word/process/object elicits complementary behaviours, ideas and expectations.  We see vehicles as transportation devices, cooking as a process for rendering food (more) edible, and the word “and” as meaning “in addition to”.  In the case of repurposing though, to see clearly is to disentangle one’s self from the old conceptual network, to acknowledge the form without the function.

Everything artistic, everything that we accept as obviously art, is in fact a repurposing of function.  With this in mind we can begin to imagine how new technologies and things that are not considered art at present, will, through evolutionary opportunism, come to be encompassed by our changing definitions of what art is.

It is not that art must be inefficient, but that art is most often counter-intuitive, i.e. contrary  to preconceived notions, bias, personal and group norms, and is the opposite of what is real and obvious, and commonly observable.  It demands imagination: the ability to see something that is not there or that is not factually true.

This is why you cannot simply pick up any tool and expect to make art with it, especially when that tool is complex and appears to harbour its own inbuilt power, because the specificities of that tool and its process will enforce a natural structure and rhythm upon the outcome.  This effect is magnified and made clearer when we attempt to alter existing functions.

The more you are unfamiliar with using the tool, the more it will dictate how you use it.  Having no familiarity at all, or being ignorant can thus be seen as an advantage.  Using an unfamiliar tool is therefore like looking at an abstract work of art.  Knowledge must therefore be accepted as both a prerequisite for, and obstacle to creation.

Literacy is necessary to create meaningful written phrases, sentences, paragraphs and literary works, but knowledge of famous authors and their texts can be a hindrance by acting as an attractor, focal point or bias.  In order for the imagination to function and for creativity to flourish, we must be able to resist unwanted influences.  As long as we are unaware of such (negative) influences we cannot be in an optimal position from which to make decisions about the direction of our creation.  If we accept that there is no divine voice speaking through us and that we are not blank slates, we can begin to limit our influences, and be consciously selective about how and when we allow them to surface (although this doesn’t mean we ever have full control).

When you don’t know, it is your ignorance that speaks; when you do know, it is your experience.  One of many artistic challenges is therefore striking a pleasing balance between knowing and not-knowing, which also applies to instinctive creation, and creation that is informed by deliberate research.

Stagnation arises from an imbalance or overemphasis of one aspect to the detriment of the other: too much action and not enough plot and character development, or a deep concept that lacks an equally impressive aesthetic – see ideasthesia balance theory:

“According to the present theory, art happens when the intensities of the meaning produced by a certain creation and the intensities of the experiences induced by that creation,are balanced out.”

Manual input correlates to desire and is a means of understanding value.  The more effort we are willing to put in, the greater the desire, and vice versa, in addition to greater input resulting in an increased sense of value.

If input is lost through automation, both input and its resulting value must be recouped elsewhere.  I suspect this is why photography as an art form has been driven by pre and post-production, because the actual act of making the raw image is relatively short and mechanical, especially with digital equipment.

It may seem convoluted and contrived to deliberately delay a procedure that is founded on efficiency and closing the gap between the instant (process) and the gratification (results).  Regardless of how we practise photography, it remains a relatively automatic procedure when compared to traditional art forms i.e. those made with simple tools that require higher levels of dexterity and fine motor control in order to master technically.

I think that the more physical the production process is, the less the need to justify it conceptually is felt.  That’s not to say that it isn’t necessary in order to make good art, only that we are perhaps more likely to recognise a painting as art, based solely on appearance, than we are to accept something ephemeral on the basis of its concept.